What's in a domain name? (The Economist

MALI has long had links with the wider world. Tripoli and Gao were once connected by chariot. Trade routes shuttled scholars and goods from Timbuktu to the Mediterranean and beyond. The same routes ferry guns, drugs, people and pasta today. Now Mali’s government is finding new links on the web.

Disappointed that its national top-level domain address, “.ml”, the national equivalent of “.com” or “.co.uk”, had just a few hundred users in 2012, Mali’s webmasters asked for help from Freenom, a Dutch internet firm. It beefed up the country’s web infrastructure and then offered free registration of domain names. Foreigners registered by the thousands. Surprisingly Malaysians represented a small but significant portion, perhaps because of similarities with their national domain “.my”.

Today there are 340,000 active .ml domains, and 100 new ones register every hour. Domains are not quite natural resources, but they can be gold mines. Although most of Mali’s domain registrations are free, about 1% of users agree to pay $9.95 a year to own an address. All sites must be renewed yearly, so those that are not (about 20%) are “parked”, redirecting clicks to advertising sites that generate a trickle of revenue. Freenom keeps some and Mali gets the rest. Popular domain names such as Malaysia.ml are sold at a premium.

Mali’s “.ml” is one of the fastest growing domain names in the region. Nigeria, the largest economy in Africa, sputters at just 60,000 “.ng” addresses, perhaps because a new “.ng” costs more than $100 to register. Buying a “.sn” in Senegal costs a bit less. Both require paperwork. Perhaps Ethiopia, one of the more expensive domains on the continent, should take note. Its domain, “.et”, could prove attractive to legions of science-fiction fans.